Korea's Muslims Mark Ramadan

Muslims from the Seoul metropolitan area are flocking into the Seoul Central Masjid in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, to offer prayer for Ramadan, which started early this month. It completely changed the cityscape of the Itaewon area, with 200 to 600 Muslims filling up the street in front of the Itaewon Fire Station every evening. There are only 40 to 50 Muslims attending prayers at the Seoul Central Masjid in normal times, but the number jumped tenfold with Ramadan. It is not rare to hear someone call out "Salam Aleikum" as you walk along the street.

According to the Korea Muslim Federation, there are about 120,000 to 130,000 Muslims living in South Korea, both Koreans and foreigners. The majority of the Muslim population is made up of migrant workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the number of Korean Muslims amounts to some 35,000. "I first went to the mosque out of curiosity and I ended up becoming a Muslim myself," says Ahn Tae-hwan, a 15-year-old middle school student. "My friends ask me why I'm not eating anything these days, so I tell them I'm on a diet." Kim Dong-su (49) converted to Islam after meeting a Moroccan woman when he went to the country for business in 1998 and married her.

Muslims from many different countries can be spotted in the mosque. Seid Issdram, a 30-year-old Moroccan who works for a plastic bag company near Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, said he came to pray despite the fact that it takes an hour and a half by subway and bus to get to the mosque. Ali Ahmad (31) from Egypt is studying education at Seoul National University. Zain (38) from Pakistan said he came after closing his clothing shop in Itaewon. Women with scarves or in hijab were chatting, and the children were having fun playing ball in the playground in front of the mosque.

A Muslim halal store near the Seoul Central Masjid in Itaewon, Seoul A Muslim halal store near the Seoul Central Masjid in Itaewon, Seoul

After a short prayer, the Muslims shared Arab-style chicken rice. For the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast between the sunrise and the sunset. They had not eaten anything for more than 14 hours, from 4:30 a.m.; not even a sip of water had passed their lips. Ramadan changed the working pattern of Muslim restaurants in Itaewon. Pakistani restaurant "Swat Food" near the Seoul Central Masjid is effectively closed during the day but becomes crowded after 7 p.m. Nearby Turkish restaurant Salam is the same. An employee there said, "We're very busy after the sun goes down during Ramadan."

Many Muslims in Korea are unhappy with misconceptions about Islam. In Korea, Islam is associated with terrorism. But Seid from Morocco said, "Many people in Korea have a negative view of Muslims when they watch global news on terrorism." Ali said Koreans do not seem to know much about Islam, and stressed that Islam is religion of peace. Shariq Saeed (42) from Pakistan hopes for more dialogue between different religions in Korean society, and wishes more and more Koreans will realize that different cultures coexist in the country.

Korean Muslims feel it is difficult to make other people understand why they cannot eat pork. Sung Ju-young (25) said his friends think he is allergic to pork and his body rejects alcohol because he cannot hang out with his friends for pork and soju dinner. Asked if he fasts even during Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, Kim Gwon-young (49) said, "The principle is to fast even during the Chuseok holidays, but if exceptional circumstances do not allow me to do so, I count the number of days, and personally go on a fast for the number of days I missed after Ramadan."

Lee Ju-hwa, secretary general at the Korea Muslim Federation, said Korean society "should not view Islam with prejudice, and recognize the fact that Muslims are also part of the Korean society living and working in the same country."

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 11, 2008 09:56 KST